“This is a system of assimilation that diligently works to stop us from being Kurds and Jews”

Interview with Gordyaen Benyamin Jermayi from Iranian Kurdistan by Nesi Altaras

This interview was originally published in Turkish on Avlaremoz.

In Turkey, there were Jewish communities that lived in various cities, including villages and towns all over Van and Hakkari, concentrated in a few places like Baskale (Elbak), Chermik, and Yuksekova (Gawar). What can you tell us about Jews on the Iranian side? And what is it like to be a Jew in Eastern Kurdistan, in Rojhelat? Can you talk about growing up with this identity under the Islamic republic?

I’m from across the border [from Turkey], from Urmia. Personally I identify as Kurdish, that’s how I see myself. Others disagree, identify differently. But I like this [identifying as Kurdish]. Until 2-3 years ago, I did have a sort of identity crisis, being stuck between Iranian, Kurdish, Jewish.

A lot of people were having these debates about who they were. You have to remember we are in this brainwashing system, which really has damaged our mental health with aggressive assimilation. Assimilating both Kurdish and Jewish identity.

But now I identify as Kurdish and I am happy with knowing myself as that and feel safe with it. My cousins and Armenian friends might think of themselves as Persians or so on because of the system we grew up under. This racist discriminatory system has done this to us.

We know that Urmia was one of the larger Jewish communities in this region that sits between Lake Van and Lake Urmia. What was Jewish presence in Urmia like during your life?

Urmia had 5 synagogues and all of them were destroyed, 4 under the previous [Shah] regime. The Great Synagogue, which was built in 1907 by the doctor Mir Abdullah Hakim and his wife Merel, has been closed for 30 years. I never got a chance to see it. It’s basically a ruin now and everything in it has been stolen.

Your religion, religious identity has to be registered with the state and the state knows. We would say we are Muslim [outside the home], our parents told us to do this to be out of trouble. We are essentially forced to identify as Muslim.

The system we lived under was antisemitic. At school, teachers would say Jews are witches, they drink Muslim blood. Even now this sort of thing affects my education, the grades I was given and so on.

But Urmia is a multicultural place: it has Sunni Muslims, Armenians, Assyrians, some Jews. As you can see from what I am saying, the situation of non-Muslims and non-Persians in Iran is quite intense, this is the condition of what I would call a third-rate citizen.

People from non-Muslims communities are present especially in Urmia but still they forced us to memorize the Quran, quotes from Ali and Muhammed, to pray in school. They force kids to do this. As part of school we would be taken to Imamzadehs burial sites and do prayers. And even for Sunni Muslims, which most Kurds are, they are forced to study Shia laws and ways. I’m not a religious person but the rest of my family basically never had a chance to learn or practice [anything Jewish].

At the same time, the assimilationist system is trying to drill into us, to teach us to not identify as Kurdish. Until I was 13, I hated being a Jewish Kurd and I was working hard on my Persian to not have an accent and not be recognizable. This is not a story unique to me of course.

Did people around you speak any Jewish language like Lishan Didan (Northern Jewish Neo-Aramaic)?

We don’t speak Lishana but we come from a village, my grandparents, a village called Didan. Nowadays, there are no Jews there but there are still some Assyrians.

This was an area where Jews have been very mobile historically, some communities even being nomadic or semi-nomadic, which is an unusual thing for Jews. Especially since the violence that began in this region during WWI, between 1914-1918, then the attacks on Kurds on all sides of the border, the Iran-Iraq war, the Islamic revolution, there has been a lot of episodes of acute and intense violence. What has been the trajectory of your family?

My grandfather is a major source for me when it comes to recent history. He’s traveled a lot in the region. So from him, I know that we originally came from across the border on the Turkish side, a hundred years ago. My family came to Urmia escaping from the war. According to what I’ve heard from my grandfather, he said our family moved from a village called Pishtqesre - behind the castle in Kurdish - his family came first to Rajan and then they kept moving around. Later living in the village I mentioned named Didan, which is near Urmia.

At the same time, some of the Assyrians that ran away from the Ottomans [during WWI, in a bout of violence knows as Sayfo] came to Sanandaj, in Eastern Kurdistan. They built a community here in Urmia. This is a community of Chaldeans/Assyrians, and the Armenian community, are people I grew up with in Urmia, neighbors, and friends from school.

That is fascinating. There are a lot of stories of Neo-Aramaic speaking Jews from both sides of the Ottoman-Iranian border fleeing violence in the early twentieth century. Van-Hakkari Jews ran to near Urmia, where they often had relations, then as violence creeped closer to there, leaving for Palestine or sometimes for Tbilisi, Georgia. Others (maybe forcibly) migrated further west to the Turkish city of Adana. And some following Muslim Kurdish leaders into mountain hideouts, often in Iraqi Kurdistan. So this is an area with a very mobile Jewish population. And what about later generations, after your grandparents?

My mother’s family was in a village that got bombed during the Iran-Iraq war when she was starting elementary school and they had to escape to a different village, then to a refugee camp. That meant she never went to school. She got married to my father, not having gone to school. She had to learn to read and write after she got married, in adult school.

And what is the current situation for Jews in Rojhelat?

There are only a few people left there, maybe a few more in Kermanshah and some Kurdish Jews in Tehran. Most of my family members have left. But generally Kurdish Jews left in the 1950s and then many after the Islamic revolution. As I said there is no synagogue and not really a functioning community.

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